Japan "doll" murder: Identity theft or 'foreigner crime'?

It feels a little disconcerting to read Japanese netizens’ comments on the murder of Osaka nurse Rika Okada, whose body was sent across Japan by parcel delivery in a box marked as a “doll”.    

To most of them, the crime, it seems, is not so much that the evidence allegedly points to the ex-classmate as the perpetrator but that the said ex-classmate is a foreigner, a Brazilian of Japanese descent.    

“A Brazilian again? Brazilians are really too much,” said reader 09ofY.0 in a typical post on the comments column of an online story about the case.    

Ms Okada, 29, was last seen alive leaving her hospital workplace on March 21 for her apartment in Osaka City, where she lived alone in a public housing estate. Her body was found in a Tokyo storage lock-up on May 21.

The Osaka nurse had reconnected with her Tokyo-based ex-classmate in January through Facebook after 10 years apart, and had met, with two other friends, at a Japanese tavern in February in Osaka City.    

Police believe that the former primary and secondary school classmate, whose name has been withheld, had set out to steal Ms Okada’s identity.    

Their investigations showed that the ex-classmate, who could only find work as a temporary worker at a convenience store, had overstayed in Japan for a year, was broke, and was said to be looking for a way to get out of Japan without getting caught.     

According to the latest account of events, Ms Okada had sent instant online messages to a few friends on March 21, saying that her ex-classmate was waiting for her at the door to her apartment and had asked to stay with her for the night.    

“I refused as I had work the next day,” said Ms Okada, who has been described by friends as soft-spoken and kind.    

Police investigations and an autopsy report indicate that she probably did not survive the night – she was stabbed some 50 times in the chest, stomach and back, and there were no defensive wounds found on her hands and arms.    

On March 22, Ms Okada’s colleagues received a message from her mobile phone saying that she was too ill to go to work. The next day, a parcel delivery firm received a call for a job from a woman claiming to be Ms Okada.     

The deliverymen on March 24 collected a 2m-long box weighing about 50kg that was said to contain a “doll” made of clay.

While someone had filled in Ms Okada’s name on the request form, the contact number was the mobile number of the ex-classmate.

One report claimed that Ms Okada’s body had been drained of blood for easy transportation.    

In any case, the efficient delivery service took only one day to send the “doll” box some 400km from Ms Okada’s Osaka apartment to the ex-classmate’s apartment in Tokyo, which she used to share with a Chinese woman.    

Even though the Chinese flatmate had returned to Shanghai in mid-March to work after finishing her postgraduate studies in Japan, Japanese netizens have jumped on the Chinese connection.     

“The Chinese woman must have been an accomplice!” said @NewsUS1 on Twitter. Others have called her the mastermind. At the very least, “she must have been involved in some way”, said anonymous@oobun.    

Then there are those who say that the case is proof that foreigners cannot be trusted.

“Even though I don’t want to discriminate against foreigners, this case shows that one has to be wary about people from developing countries,” said reader UKAcdyRV0.    

In keeping with the theory of identity theft, the ex-classmate had applied for a passport and credit card in Ms Okada’s name, and left for Shanghai on May 3, in the company of herChinese flatmate, who had returned to Tokyo in late April on a short visit.     

Professor Angelo Ishi of Musashi University’s sociology department, who has done extensive fieldwork and research on the Brazilian community in Japan, said that the negative comments about Brazilians and foreigners on the Internet and on social media in relation to the case are not unexpected.    

“The Japanese police insist on associating foreigners with crime, and the mass media here just copy and paste such information, leading to a public discourse that is focused on something distinct called ‘foreigner crime’,” he told The Straits Times.    

In 2013, there were 181,268 legally registered Brazilians in Japan, making them the fourth largest foreign community in Japan after the Chinese, Koreans and the Filipinos.

At its peak in 2005, there were more than 300,000 Brazilians in Japan.    

The influx began in 1990, when Brazil’s economy was in a bad patch, while Japan was experiencing a labour crunch and had relaxed rules on the entry of Brazilians of Japanese descent. It was believed that their Japanese looks and ancestry would enable them to integrate into the country easily.    

However, most of the Brazilians were second, third or fourth generation Japanese who spoke Portuguese, and many of them experienced problems settling in due to the language barrier.     

Prof Ishi, a Brazilian of Japanese descent himself, noted that the Japanese government had failed to create the infrastructure for integration, such as a school system for the Brazilian children.

Japan had probably also kept the laws on the entry of Brazilians vague to keep its hands free to control the flow. Recognising them as immigrants, for instance, would have required building the infrastructure to help them, said Prof Ishi.    

Indeed, in 2009, the Japanese government began offering money to foreign workers of Japanese descent to go home if they pledge not to return to Japan to work until such time as they were needed. Quite a few Brazilians have taken up the offer – in 2009, there were still more than 267,000 of them in Japan, compared to last year’s 181,268.    

Part of the problem is the way foreigners are often portrayed as bringing crime along with them, an assertion that is not backed by the statistics but which Prof Ishi said has contributed to the wariness of the Japanese against foreigners.    

The National Police Agency and the Justice Ministry put out figures about crimes in Japan every year. While there is a section on “foreigner crimes”, and a clear focus of the number of crimes committed by foreigners, even a complete breakdown of crimes by nationality (the Chinese commit the most, followed by the Koreans and Vietnamese), there is no similar statistics focusing on the Japanese.    

A look at the publicly available figures for thefts in 2011 is telling. There were 1,133,127 cases of theft in Japan, which is 0.89 per cent of the total population. Foreigners accounted for 9,210 theft cases, which is 0.44 per cent of the foreign population in Japan.

But such statistics are often buried in a long section in the annual White Paper on crimes in Japan that focuses on ways to combat “foreigner crimes”.

Recently, the paper has focused on foreigners coming to Japan who have set up an “infrastructure” for crimes through such means as unregistered mobile phones, fake papers and fake marriages.    

Japan’s foreign population, at about 1.9 per cent of the total population, is one of the lowest in the world – the US rate is 14.3 per cent.

With the country facing a declining population, the government has talked up taking in more migrant workers, but has faced resistance from citizens worried about an influx of foreigners.     

Ms Okada’s ex-classmate is currently in the custody of the Chinese authorities for entering the country fraudulently, and it is likely that she may be sent back to Brazil even though Japan has requested for her extradition.

China does not have an extradition treaty with Japan. This has also attracted negative comments from Japanese netizens.    

Prof Ishi said: “Even if the ex-classmate is involved in the murder, one surely cannot condemn all the Brazilians in Japan because of that.”